TIGER BY THE TAIL (1969)
Written by Charles A. Wallace
Produced by Francis D. Lyon
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
CAST: Christopher George, Tippi Hedren, Dean Jagger, Charo, Glenda Farrell, Skip Homeier, John Dehner, Alan Hale, Jr., R.G. Armstrong, Lloyd Bochner, Dennis Patrick
Reviewed by Tim Ferrante
R.G. Springsteen’s TIGER BY THE TAIL (hereafter TBTT) provides a warm return-to-childhood experience for those of us who gluttonously ingested ‘60s television programs. Christopher George top-lines its cast of familiar TV faces that’s augmented with fallen big screen beauty Tippi Hedren.
George portrays Steve Michaelis (Mick-AY-lis), a military vet returning to the States after a three year Southeast Asia tour. A stopover dust-up in a Mexico bar creates some bad press that follows him to his home turf of El Paso and the ire of his brother Frank (Dennis Patrick), the prominent shareholder of Ruidoso Downs race track.
Steve’s inauspicious welcome by his testy brother suspiciously coincides with the track's delivery of $1 million by armored truck and an armed robbery that goes exactly as unplanned when brother Frank is killed. It’s an inside job and the perpetrators are gifted with the perfect patsy: Steve Michaelis.
After all, he has the most to gain by Frank’s death...he’s the sole heir to his brother’s controlling interest in Ruidoso Downs! Sheriff Chancey Jones (John Dehner) encourages his prime suspect to assist the official investigation with his own snooping.
But time is of the essence; Frank’s will stipulates that Steve must make a buyout offer to the four other owners within three days otherwise the controlling shares revert back to them. The suspects are many and all possess enough motive to want Frank dead. Steve gradually peels the onion between frame-up attempts, bullets, a dead body here and a punch-up there. The last Act’s surprise reveal pits him and the robbery’s mastermind in a one on one confrontation.
Eddie Cantor once observed that in show business, “Likeability is 90 percent of the battle.” His insight is clearly evident with Christopher George’s spot-on portrayal of self-assured Steve Michaelis and explains why he worked continuously until his death in 1983. George is exceedingly likeable regardless of his character, so when it came to leading man duties for TBTT casting director Kerwin Coughlin knew exactly who he needed. His quick rise to notoriety was well-earned. The handsome George had already appeared in commercials, trod Broadway boards, wowed photographers as a print ad model in the early ‘60s and starred as Sgt. Sam Troy in ABC-TV’s THE RAT PATROL (1966-1968). He appoints his character with charm, strength and a determined will to solve his brother’s murder.
Tippi Hedren portrays Rita Armstrong, Frank Michaelis’ arm candy squeeze who Steve suspects may have something to do with the robbery and murder. She portrays Rita with detached sexuality similar to her characters in two Alfred Hitchcock films, THE BIRDS (1963) and MARNIE (1964). Hedren’s casting is notable; five years earlier she was one of Hollywood’s hottest names with no shortage of directors who wanted to work with her. Hitchcock, who’d signed her to an exclusive contract in 1961, launched the erstwhile unknown into immediate fame. But it was her resistance to Hitchcock’s oppressive control and the rejection of his tender advances that resulted in the portly auteur dousing his plans for Hedren’s long term superstardom. After only two pictures Hitchcock handcuffed her career, damaging it so severely that it would never recover. By 1969 she’d swapped leading men like Sean Connery in MARNIE for Christopher George in TBTT. Ironically (fittingly?) Hitchcock’s post-Hedren years produced only four more films with only one – FRENZY (1972) – exhibiting any notion of the director’s gift for terror and suspense. Hedren's rear view summation of her mentor's punishment? “[Hitchcock] ruined my career, but he didn't ruin my life.”
The film is indeed a treasure for its pleasantly familiar cast, all of whom were seasoned pros used to working in the fast-paced production of weekly episodic television. Alan Hale, Jr. plays race track co-owner Billy Jack Whitehorn. He gives Whitehorn a “Skipper-ish” overlay that’s abandoned when delivering some shady “I know nothing!” lip to Steve Michaelis’ probing. It’s a tangential part, but Hale portrays the worried man effortlessly.
Few actors possess Lloyd Bochner’s ability for playing scheming crooks with such smarmy class. He’s cast as Del Ware, a track co-owner who agreed to the robbery, but never agreed to murder. Steve brings the conflicted nervous wreck to the brink of a near confession early on, but it’s too little info and fate has a decidedly different plan for Del Ware. The Canadian-born Bochner’s wall-to-wall television and movie appearances began in the ‘40s and didn’t show any signs of slowing until the ‘90s when the actor was in his seventies. Amongst a lifetime of fictional characters and voice-overs, the multi-talented performer is never more delightful than when he was himself – on more than one occasion – as a celebrity guest on the early ‘70s syndicated game show, BEAT THE CLOCK. For Bochner it was a bit of a homecoming as the show taped the majority of its seasons in Montreal even though it was an American production. Watching the ever-polished Lloyd Bochner executing crazy stunts in a race against time is a long-lasting visual incongruity!
Another TV notable is John Dehner who portrays Sheriff Chancey Jones with some of his adept western acting style. Jones is a big city cop who came to El Paso for a softer gig as his segue into retirement. He’s a savvy, firm-footed lawman who eventually warms up to Steve, tolerating his heavy-handed approach in finding his brother's murderer and the missing million. Dehner’s background is throat deep in performance genres and artistic pursuits. It would have been impossible not to have heard or seen him during his most productive decades. He worked as a Disney animator (!), he performed on radio, in motion pictures and countless TV shows. His wonderful baritone pipes gave voice to hundreds of cartoon characters and narrations. Whether it was a dull-witted Nazi on HOGAN’S HEROES (1965-1971) or a colorful tale-spinning drunk on BONANZA (1959-1973), John Dehner brought studied professionalism to every part. His appearance in TBTT is one of its shining attributes.
The list of household faces also include Dean Jagger, Charo (in her American film debut), Skip Homeier, Burt Mustin and the great R.G. Armstrong whose supporting role as law officer Ben Holmes is a thorough misuse of this remarkable actor.
TBTT was filmed in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico (its race track remains fully operational to this day) doubling for El Paso, Texas. Various online sources can’t seem to agree on its release year with 1968, 1969 and 1970 all being cited, but TBTT’s National Screen Service code is 69/322 which indicates the film’s theatrical availability in the last quarter of 1969. It was one of several produced by United Pictures Corporation (UPC) whose primary mission was to make feature motion pictures suitable for network and syndication television. UPC co-founder and TBTT's producer was Francis D. “Pete” Lyon. His film career began in 1923 as a menial studio laborer when the future Academy Award winner – for co-editing BODY AND SOUL (1947) – needed money to pay his $25 per semester college tuition. In his 1993 autobiography, Twists of Fate: An Oscar Winner's International Career (Evanston Publishing, Inc.), he explained UPC's business plan:
“[In 1966] some associates and I started United Pictures Corporation to produce color feature films aimed principally for the growing syndication and network television markets. We produced a program of nine action-adventure pictures with a couple of science fiction shows included. As the guiding forces of the production team, Earle Lyon (no relation), a most knowledgeable filmmaker, functioned efficiently as executive producer. I had directed some WELLS FARGO episodes he produced at Universal and thought he had fit into our program. Edmund Baumgarten, a former Bank of America motion picture loan officer and former president of Regal Pictures, was in charge of business affairs; I was in charge of production. We were fortunate to get a couple of imaginative writers. Arthur C. Pierce and Charles Wallace came up with some interesting scripts and were very cooperative in our small production group. I directed five of the nine pictures we made, and all but the first one, CASTLE OF EVIL (1966), which was distributed independently, was sold to CBS either for network or syndication. We believed that a well-mounted product with recognizable names in the cast, made at a modest price, would return a reasonable profit to the production company from the television markets alone. Other shows we sold to CBS include CYBORG 2087 (1966), DIMENSION 5 (1966), THE DESTRUCTORS (1968), MONEY JUNGLE (1967), THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1969), PANIC IN THE CITY (1968) and TIGER BY THE TAIL (1969). As an example of our casting, in TIGER BY THE TAIL, we were able to get Christopher George, Tippi Hedren, Dean Jagger, Alan Hale, Jr., Charro, Glenda Farrell, John Dehner and other competent people. I was credited as producer and R.G. “Bud” Springsteen as director, with Earle Lyon as executive producer. When we organized UPC, with financing by Canadian oil interests, it was our plan to do our own distribution. However, the backers later saw an opportunity to spin off some of the costs by accepting a distribution deal (and some financing) from Harold Goldman Associates for a healthy percentage of profits.”
The UPC business model of creating product for starved broadcasters was a pioneering idea at the onset. Reviews of TBTT and its UPC-produced siblings sometimes make mention of their “made-for-TV look” or comparing them to “an expensive made-for-tv movie.” As Lyon indicated, the films were indeed made with a sale to television in mind and a lesser concern for theatrical play dates. In a sense,they were made for TV films but not in the conventional meaning of the term. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be long before the networks assumed full control of programming needs by financing their own “made-for” productions designed to attract specific audiences, age groups and – more importantly – advertisers!
R.G. Springsteen - photo from www.westernclippings.com
According to the IMdB, TBTT was director Springsteen’s last film. He spent a lifetime making B-westerns, episodic television and bottom-billed programmers for Republic Pictures and independent producers. Undeniably a skilled filmmaker, his expertise was founded in budget conscious productions and explains TBTT's visual impact.
It also marked the penultimate film edited by Terry Morse. Like his colleague Francis Lyon, Morse's career stretched back to the silent era. His most notable directing assignment were the sequences filmed for the American version of GODZILLA (1957) featuring Raymond Burr.
Perhaps TBTT – and UPC'S output in general – is best summed up by a quote in Lyon's Twists of Fate bio. It's attributed to yet another budget conscious filmmaker, Edward L. (INVADERS FROM MARS) Alperson, who understood when to stop spending time and money on a project for marginal gain. Lyon worked as an editor on a couple of his films. Upon finishing a complete edit of which Alperson approved, Lyon suggested to his boss that he go back and make a few fixes he felt were needed. The penny-pinching Alperson simply turned to Lyon and said, “Pete, don't die from improvement.”